PARIS -- The project of expanding NATO was launched without serious reflection in Washington, mainly in response to domestic bureaucratic and political pressures. The Clinton administration now feels compelled to stick with it out of fear of the humiliation of changing course, and because dropping it would seem a bow to Moscow -- which, Washington insists, mustn't be permitted "a veto" over what NATO does.
Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state, wants quick expansion. Even if the idea is a bad one (not that she can admit it), the question of expansion should not be allowed to develop into a "permanent source of tension and insecurity." That's what she told the House International Relations Committee Tuesday. The decision is supposed to be taken at the NATO Council meeting in Madrid in July.
A better argument says hold back, both out of respect for the doubts of some allies, and to allow everyone, including Washington, to think again about this project.
The reconsideration would profit from some current reflections by Robert Cooper, one of the bright men of the British Foreign Office, currently minister at the British embassy in Bonn.
In a recent essay (found in a book called "Life After Politics," published by Fontana Press in London), he argues that 1989 marked a break in European history, in that it ended the balance-of-power system. A new European system of integrated nations has been developing, as well a new method of finding international security through what Mr. Cooper calls "armed transparency" -- "not the same thing as trust, though it might one day grow into this."
Until 1989, international order was based either on hegemony or on balance. The hegemonic model was imperial, with its last expression the various efforts to create something resembling world government or world federation.
Balance among independent power centers worked during much of the nation-state period, but could not accommodate the unification of Germany by Bismarck in the last century, a state too powerful to be contained by traditional means. The result was the world wars and Germany's redivision in 1945, now ended.
The system of balance was undermined by technology's tendency toward unlimited or unacceptably costly wars. The theory of balance assumes that the balance can topple, and has to be restored by a war, thereby giving everyone a lesson in the need to keep up the balance.
In the Cold War, two quasi-hegemonic powers developed in east and west, balanced against one another. Thanks to arms-control measures and detente, this relationship subsequently evolved toward the armed-transparency system, which provides a sophisticated version of deterrence, requiring that states voluntarily limit their sovereignty (by allowing rivals to verify arms-limitation agreements) and accept a measure of vulnerability.
NATO expansion would tend to unbalance and remilitarize a Russian-Western relationship that since 1989 has been relatively stable, based on armed transparency. Expanding NATO tends to enlarge what Moscow certainly sees as hegemonic American power in Europe. NATO would become the instrument of U.S. predominance not only in Western Europe but in Central and Eastern Europe as well.
This naturally disturbs Russia, with important consequences for Russia's internal politics. It also disturbs the major West European powers -- including Germany and even Britain -- rather more than Washington may realize.
The plan to "Europeanize" NATO by allowing European-commanded joint task forces access to U.S./NATO resources has yet to produce much more than a nasty quarrel over command appointments, and over the limits placed on European use of U.S. resources. It has made U.S.-European relations in NATO more difficult, rather than better.
There is much to be said at times for inaction. To unsettle arrangements that work is not a good idea, when there currently is no threat to Central or Eastern European security. Better to explore how the "armed transparency" security arrangements already in place can be improved, and how security for both sides could be bettered through formal mutual as well as unilateral guarantees of the independence of the former Warsaw Pact countries.
Mr. Cooper writes that the U.S. has demonstrated ambivalence about the newly changing European order, and about its new relations with Europe and Russia, and indeed about its entire world role in what it is fashionable to call the postmodern world.
I would add that it has a right to ambivalence, but exactly because it is uncertain about its role, prudence would counsel holding back from radical and insufficiently considered changes.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 2/17/97